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Tributes paid after death announced of Dr Agnes Abuom, Kenyan ecumenist and peacemaker

Posted on: June 1, 2023 3:08 PM
Dr Agnes Abuom greets Pope Francis at the WCC Ecumenical Centre, Geneva.
Photo Credit: Albin Hillert/WCC

[by ACNS with additional material from the WCC Communications Team] Dr Agnes Abuom, a lay woman from the Anglican Church of Kenya who became the first African and first female to be elected Moderator of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, has died after a short illness. She was 73. Dr Abuom was a passionate ecumenist and peacemaker, and her ministry took her all over the world. 

Dr Abuom’s long involvement with the World Council of Churches (WCC) began in 1975 when Nairobi hosted the WCC Assembly. In 1976 she moved to Sweden after controversies surrounding her involvement in student organisations and politics. She learned Swedish and earned a degree in education. She spent two years as a youth worker for the WCC in Geneva before returning to Sweden where she gained her doctorate in missiology. She returned to the WCC in the 1980s in the Youth Sub-Unit and later worked with refugees in Sudan and as a tutor in Zimbabwe. 

She returned to Kenya in 1989 and was imprisoned for her opposition to President Daniel arap Moi. On her release she worked for the Anglican Church of Kenya on national development issues and a civic education programme. 

Her involvement in the leadership of the WCC began in 1998, when she attended the WCC Assembly in Harare as a delegate of the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK). She also represented the ACK at the WCC Assemblies in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2006; Busan, South Korea, in 2013; and Karlsruhe, Germany, in 2022. 

She was a member of the WCC’s Central Committee for three consecutive terms: as a WCC president, between 1998 and2006; as a member between 2006 and 2013; and as Moderator between 2013 and 2022. 

Most recently, Dr Abuom had agreed to serve as a member of the Lambeth Conference Phase Three Steering Group, but her health condition did not permit her to do so. This week, the Steering Group launched the latest stage of the Lambeth Conference journey – Add your voice to the call – with the publication of revised Lambeth Calls and resources on discipleship. 

The Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, Bishop Anthony Poggo, was amongst many Church leaders paying tribute. “Anglicans mourn the death of Dr Agnes Abuom and give thanks to God for her outstanding and exemplary leadership within the Anglican Church of Kenya, the Anglican Communion, and in the ecumenical movement and the World Council of Churches,” he said. 

“I first met Dr Abuom in the late 1990s when she attended St Luke’s Parish in Kenyatta, Nairobi where I was an attached clergy from 1996 to 2007. I next met her when she was Moderator of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches and played a significant role in nurturing the peace process and reconciliation in South Sudan.

“Dr Abuom’s contribution to ecumenism and peace building were recognised globally and also within the Anglican Communion. In 2017 she was awarded the Lambeth Cross for Ecumenism by the Archbishop of Canterbury. 

“She had a passion for faith, for social justice and for Christian unity, and brought this, with her many gifts, to her long service on the committees and meetings of the WCC, where she served as President and Moderator. 

“I thank God for her life and witness. May she rest in peace and rise in glory.” 

Dr Abuom’s term of office as Moderator of the WCC’s Central Committee came to an end in September last yerar. Her successor, Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD – the German Lutheran Church), said: “After getting this sad news, I just watched her last video on the WCC homepage, which is something like her legacy for us as the new leadership. It was very moving for me to hear her speak. . . 

“I will always hold her in loving memory. It is sad to lose her so soon after the end of her service to WCC. I am glad she still experienced the honour of being named as an Anglican canon. We will miss her love, her wisdom, her kindness, her confidence, her inspiration. She is now leaning in the everlasting arms.” 

The Presiding Bishop of the (Lutheran) Church of Norway, the Most Revd Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, was General Secretary of the WCC between 2010 to 2020, during most of Dr Abuom’s time as Central Committee Moderator. Paying tribute today, he described Dr Abuom as “one of the great personalities and leaders in the global Christian family of our time.” 

“The years we worked together, leading the work of the World Council of Churches, will remain precious memories and moments of blessings that I will treasure forever,” Bishop Tveit said. “Dr Agnes was a daughter of Africa, extremely gifted and empowered by God to raise the great issues of unity among people and among the churches in the whole world. 

“Dr Agnes was a champion for true Christian unity, a unity in faith, hope, and love, with justice and peace for all. She led our joint struggle in the ecumenical movement for unity, peace, and justice around the world with compassion and professional competence, embedded in a deep and profound spirituality: ‘Let us pray! Please, lead us in prayer!’ – so she always started and concluded any session of work.” 

He added: “As God has now called her to eternal rest, I offer my thanks to the Triune God for granting me the gift to know and work together with this great woman, our beloved sister, Dr Agnes Abuom.” 

The current WCC General Secretary, the Revd Prof Dr Jerry Pillay from the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa, said: “the WCC mourns the loss of its immediate past moderator, Dr Agnes Abuom, who passed away on 31 May after a brief illness. She was a woman of humble spirit, great compassion and steadfast faith. Though small in frame yet she possessed the energy, strength and vision for leadership far beyond the reach of many people her age. 

“Her wisdom, patience, ability to listen, sensitivity and firmness all gave her the qualities of a dynamic and wise leader. The WCC was blessed to have her serve for many years in the ecumenical movement and then in the past eight years as moderator of the Central Committee. Her passion for Christian unity, justice and peace are what prompted her to give sacrificial and untiring service to the WCC. We will always remember her with joy and thanksgiving. ‘Blessed are those who die in the Lord, they shall live forever.’ 

Dr Pillay added: “may the presence and power of the Holy Spirit bring comfort, counsel, peace, love, strength and hope to Agnes’ family, friends, church and all those who knew and loved her in the WCC and beyond. May God’s grace be sufficient for you all.” 

Tributes were also paid at the Vatican, where the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity (DPCU) said that Dr Abuom had “travelled to the Vatican on several occasions to meet with the Holy Father and to promote collaboration between the WCC and various Dicasteries of the Roman Curia, including the DPCU.”

It said: “In entrusting her to the merciful love of God, the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity recalls her passionate commitment to the cause of Christian unity and to the promotion of justice and peace among peoples and cultures. Requiescat in pace!” 

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